Agriculture Must Change To Prevent Catastrophic Warming : The Salt The way we produce food and manage land must change radically if humans hope to avoid catastrophic global temperature rise, according to a new report by the United Nations panel on climate change.
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To Slow Global Warming, U.N. Warns Agriculture Must Change

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To Slow Global Warming, U.N. Warns Agriculture Must Change

To Slow Global Warming, U.N. Warns Agriculture Must Change

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about how our own eating habits can play into climate change.

Allison, welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So we've just heard from Dan Charles that there's this need to grow more food from less land. How would shifting our own diets personally help make that happen?

AUBREY: The big picture here is that if people in countries that consume a lot of meat - and that is definitely us here in the U.S. - cut way back, it could lead to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. And one goal that experts have come up with is to eat no more than one hamburger worth of red meat per week. We'll come back to that in a minute, but let me explain why.

It takes a whole lot of land to produce meat. If you think about it this way, imagine around the globe all of the crop land out there - one-third of it is used to grow food not for people but for animals. It's animal feed. And when you combine the land needed to graze animals and feed them, this is just a whole lot. The World Resources Institute has estimated that for every gram of protein, producing beef can require 20 times the land and emit 20 times the emissions compared to what it takes to produce beans.

CORNISH: So are there certain types of meat that are better in terms of environmental footprint? Or basically is the suggestion that we should not be eating meat?

AUBREY: There are definitely better choices, and it does not have to be all or nothing. I just mentioned cows and other ruminants. They require a lot of land and feed. But they also release a lot of methane into the atmosphere. Every time these animals belch, a bit of methane goes up into the atmosphere. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.

So from an environmental perspective, options such as chicken and turkey can be better. It takes less animal feed to produce meat from these animals. They grow faster. They require less land. So when it comes to reducing the environmental footprint of your diet, you don't have to completely give up meat.

CORNISH: So what is the environmentally sound supplement - right - to that meat eating that we won't be doing?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, I'd say that there is a consensus that has emerged, and that is that a plant-based diet can be better for both the planet and for our health. There was this big report that came out earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission report. It found that if you limit red meat to about 3.5 ounces a week - that's the one hamburger I mentioned - and instead you eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, that this can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

And when it comes to getting enough protein, you'll hear people say, oh, I need protein. I need meat. The research shows that if you eat plant-based proteins such as nuts and beans in lieu of the animal protein, there is a lower risk of death from heart disease.

So just to help connect the dots back to the sustainability issue - by one estimate, if people in the U.S. switched from beef to beans, this switch alone could get us more than half way to the greenhouse gas reduction targets set during the Obama administration, which is kind of crazy to think about.

CORNISH: Yeah. My mind is wrapping around that as you're saying it. I want to talk about another angle of this food waste because we hear that about 30% of food produced is actually wasted. Can reducing food waste affect this at all?

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, people should waste less of what they buy. I mean, it's estimated that the typical family in the U.S. tosses out about $1,600 of groceries a year. And the report out today from the U.N. finds that food waste may contribute up to 10% of the human-made greenhouse gas emissions. So we have a whole bunch of tips on our website to help you shop smarter and waste less in your own homes.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

Allison, thanks for sharing this with us.

AUBREY: Thanks so much.

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